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Disney Planning Timeline: What You Need to Book for Walt Disney World & When

Magic, adventure, and a lifetime of memories…that’s why people go to Disney right? You might feel the magic once you’re there, but Disney trips certainly don’t magically plan themselves.

They’re more expensive than ever and they take more planning than ever. But if you are your family’s designated Disney planner (that’s me!), I’ve got your back.

Disney Planning Timeline

Here’s a rundown of everything you need to have booked before you show up for your vacation and when you should do it:

Theme Park Reservations

What? You need a reservation to show up at the parks? Yep! It’s a new one. Honestly it’s a completely ridiculous COVID holdover procedure and couldn’t be more inconvenient to guests, but at least for now it’s here to stay.

So once you purchase your theme park tickets, you’ll need to make a reservation for the first park you plan on visiting each day.

If you’ve got a park hopper ticket (where you can visit multiple parks in one day), you can park hop to any park after 2PM, but you have to have visited the park with your original reservation first. To further clarify, if you’ve booked a park reservation at Epcot but decided to stay and play at the pool all morning and go to the Magic Kingdom after 2PM (when park hopping opens up) you won’t be able to enter the Magic Kingdom because you didn’t go to Epcot (where you had your reservation) first. It’s completely stupid and 100% anti customer experience, but it is what it is.

Now, depending on when you’re going you may be able to make park reservations the day before or even the day of OR reservations may be completely sold out 2-4 weeks in advance.

Attendance is capped at each of the four parks and once reservations for that park reach capacity, it will become unavailable to book a reservation for that park. Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios availability usually sells out first with Epcot usually being the last to sell out.

If you wait too late to make park reservations, here’s what could happen:

You could only be able to get reservations for Epcot EVERY DAY OF YOUR TRIP. That means (assuming you’re not wanting to go to just Epcot every day) that you’d need to start every day at Epcot and could only go to another park after 2PM every day. It also means you’d need to pay extra for a park hopper ticket. It’s RIDICULOUS.

Here’s what’s even more ridiculous…you could be paying literally $1000 per night to stay at one of the most expensive Disney resorts and if it’s busy week (or they just randomly decide to cut capacity) and you didn’t make park reservations in advance you could be totally blocked out from entering any theme park. Mind blowing, but true.

The lesson is…if you know you’re going to Disney World, don’t take the risk of waiting around until the last minute (and the “last minute” could be 3 weeks before your trip haha) and not being able to get into the park of your choice (on the days you want) or any park at all.

Also, double check theme park availability BEFORE you purchase tickets.

Purchase Genie+

The old “Fastpass” system used to be free, but the new one is a pay to play game. When Genie+ first debuted, it was an option to add it onto your park tickets for the duration of your stay, but they’re moving to a system where it has to be purchased every day. It’ll be available to purchase at midnight (EST) the night before you park day. It will require both a park ticket and a park reservation to purchase.

There’s speculation that the reason they’re moving from selling in advance to selling only the night before is because they may start limiting it’s availability. So there’s a chance if you wait until the next morning to purchase, it may be sold out for the day.

Make Genie+ and Individual Lightning Lane Selections

Once you’ve purchased Genie+, you can make your first selection at 7AM (EST). If you’re a Disney resort guest, you can also purchase your Individual Lightning Lane attractions (2 max per day) at 7AM. If you’re not a resort guest, you’ll have to wait until the park opens (and often times they’re already sold out by then).

If you’re paying attention…yes…that means that if you want to be guaranteed you get to use Genie+ you’ll have to stay up until midnight to purchase it, and then be up by 7AM to make your first selection. On vacation. Peachy.

Make Dining Reservations

If you want to have a sit down meal on your Disney vacation (especially a character meal), reservations open up 60 days in advance. If you think that sounds psycho, it used to be 180 DAYS.

Reservations go FAST so make sure you know the exact date and time it opens to you (6AM EASTERN STANDARD TIME 60 days in advance). If you’re a resort guest, you’re supposed to be able to book all of the dining reservations for your trip at the 60 day mark (you’ll get a extra 10 day window so you can book reservations for every day of your trip on the first day  instead of waking up early every morning to make the next day’s reservations) but you’ll need to have your Disney resort reservation linked in your My Disney Experience account before and I’ll be honest…it’s often pretty glitchy and doesn’t always work.

On my last trip to Disney World, I had my hotel reservation linked and set an alarm to get up and make reservations, and it…never worked. Shrug. I honestly wasn’t able to get ANY dining reservations that we wanted.

I ended up using Touring Plans Reservations Finder tool (it’s an algorithm that scans the system for cancelations and notifies you for free) to snag a couple that we wanted and we also had pretty good success walking up and getting on the waitlist at places, especially around 5-6PM.

I suspect that they’re holding quite a bit of capacity at the restaurants for walk ups (which never used to be the case) and that’s why it’s so hard to get reservations when they open up. Honestly, I would much rather be able to walk up instead of make reservations 60 days in advance.

Insider tip: if you’re not able to get a coveted reservation at Ohana at the Polynesian Village Resort, it’s really easy to walk up if you’re there before 6ish (they open at 3:30) especially if you’re a party of 5 or 6 because they have mostly larger tables.

Also Disney has really stepped up their quick service options lately so don’t worry that you’ll be stuck with hot dogs and chicken fingers if you can’t get a reservations somewhere.

I LOVE Satuuli Canteen and Flametree BBQ in Animal Kingdom and Regal Eagle BBQ in Epcot.

Book Your Room & Airfare

You know the drill. Don’t wait until last minute, but you don’t necessarily need to do this six months in advance (unless you’re trying to stay in a really specific/limited room or property. Sometimes Disney does offer promos and discounts so even after you’ve booked, keep an eye on a discount they release that may save you some money. You can always cancel and rebook.

Book Your Transportation

Disney used to offer the Magical Express service from Orlando International Airport (MCO) for FREE (which you had to book in advance), but they stopped it this year. Mears and other companies now offer a variety of services (for a fee) ranging from shuttle buses that drop off many people with many different hotel stops to private town cars that will take you straight to your resort. All of those options will need to be booked before you arrive.

If you don’t have kids that require carseats, I 100% recommend just hopping in an Uber or Lyft after you grab your bags. It is soooooo much quicker (and cheaper!) than taking one of these shuttle services and there are so many drivers in the area that you’ll only wait a couple of minutes for a pickup.

P.S. If you want to follow along on my travel adventures in real time, you can follow me on Instagram (@caitylincoln). My post captions are full of travel tips and I have a ton of story highlights and videos with great info. And share my account with your travel loving friends! Your support really helps me keep this blog running!